"Margaret Sanger and the Refugee Department," #5, Spring 1993.
"You surely do not remember me, but I remember You not only by your work but by your visit to our home in Berlin," wrote Anna Ludwig to Margaret Sanger (August 1, 1940). Written by the wife of Dr. Carl Hamburg, a Jewish physician, the letter was just one of many Sanger received in the late 1930s and early 1940s from those seeking to escape war-torn Europe. In addition to the millions who were persecuted by the racial and political purification programs of the Nazis, many physicians, nurses, social workers and others were victimized as the Germans began closing birth control clinics. Many fled their homelands and desperately sought entry into the United States.
Sanger was horrified by the news from Europe. In 1933, she wrote to Edith How-Martyn, "All the news from Germany is sad & horrible & to be more dangerous than any other war going on anywhere because it has so many good people who applaud its atrocities & claim it's right. The sudden antagonism in Germany against the Jews & the vitriolic hatred of them is spreading underground here & is far more dangerous than the aggressive policy of the Japanese in Manchuria." (May 21, 1933, Palmer Collection, MSPP) But like many Americans in the 1930s, Sanger was opposed to U.S. involvement in the European conflict. In a letter to close friend Juliet Rublee, Sanger insisted that she would sacrifice personal possessions to assist England, "first rather than to ask mothers to give up the lives of their sons, their only possessions, for any country except America" (Rublee Papers, Dartmouth College, June 9, 1941). As a mother of two draft-age sons, Sanger resisted any level of U.S. involvement that would jeopardize American lives, yet she could not long avoid confronting the brutality and danger faced by the victims of the Nazis selective pro-natalist policies.
Many of those who wrote to Sanger knew her through her efforts to promote birth control throughout Europe; several had met her at international conferences in the 1920s. They believed that Sanger's international stature could facilitate their attempts to negotiate the strict and complex American immigration laws. "I wish to come the U.S.A. for ever or only for a shorter time, wrote Dr. Hedwig Prager (June 15, 1940), "but that is now very difficult because the Quota is full."
The quotas on immigration set by the 1924 National Origins Act remained in effect during the inter-war years despite increasing pressure from some groups to relax the restrictions to admit more refugees. U.S immigration policy required refugees to secure affidavits from American citizens that demonstrated the financial means necessary to sponsor an immigrant and insure that he or she would not become a public burden. Although Sanger was relatively well-off, her second husband J. Noah Slee was fighting charges of tax evasion and refused to provide any bank account balances or statements of the couple's personal worth. Nevertheless, Sanger decided to help. "I've always felt that those giving unselflessly to BC" she wrote, "would never be left in the lurch" (MS to Florence Rose, n.d.) and used her ownership of the couple's home in Fishkill as evidence of her financial commitment. She also relied upon such wealthy associates as Clarence Gamble to provide funding for several refugees, sometimes in the form of a loan to pay for their passage, other times by providing them with a medical research grant which would take care of the financial requirements for immigration.
Sanger's efforts, unofficially known as the "Refugee Department" in internal memos, was headed by her longtime secretary, Florence Rose. Sanger and Rose soon learned how to maneuver through the bureaucratic maze of procedures established by immigration authorities. Often the process took over two years to complete, during which time Sanger had to dance carefully between appearing to promise financial security for the refugees to the U.S. Government, and making clear to the refugees themselves that she could not actually support them. "I am writing to advise you that I have invited Dr. H. Rubinraut of Warsaw to come to America" she wrote to the American Consulate in Warsaw, "to assist us in a research program in which we are developing at present in this country" (November 13, 1938). Sanger then explained privately to Rubinraut, "We cannot offer any compensation for your services, but we, of course, will be glad to take care of your expenses involved in experimental work, etc." (November 19, 1938).
She was able to help find jobs for some of those she helped sponsor, either at the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau (MSRB), or through her friends and associates, while most of those she hired received minimal pay ($5.00 per week in some cases), her efforts did not go unchallenged. In 1939, Sanger dismissed concerns about alienating the MSRB Board of Managers, but by 1941 the Board expressly forbade her to use promises of employment at the clinic as a surety for refugees. Sanger also found her efforts questioned in another light. On signing an affidavit for yet another refugee, she asked Rose to keep it quiet, for "you know how things get started. They'll claim I'm Jewish next..." (n.d.). Yet Sanger persisted in her efforts to bring these desperate people to the United States because she believed, "we can scarcely stand by & have the opportunity to save a life from torture and not do it" (MS to Rose, n.d.).
As the situation in Europe worsened, Sanger stepped up her efforts. She used her contacts in Washington to speed up cases that seemed to drag on without end. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin was able to expedite paperwork in the case of two Yugoslavian women whose papers were being held up at the U.S. Embassy in Geneva. In another case, Sanger used her relationship with Elinor Morganthau, wife of Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau to try to win a visa for a German doctor. Always impatient with bureaucracy, Sanger felt increasingly frustrated at the amount of red tape she encountered. Unable to move the paperwork for a desperate couple out of a U.S. Embassy, she told Florence Rose, "It makes me heartsick, to have those two dear souls kept there because of some puppy who is temporarily important." (January 3,1941). When she lost contact with Dr. Rubinraut she contacted the Red Cross. "About six months ago, our mail to Dr. Rubinraut was returned.... We are, of course, anxious to know whether Dr. Rubinraut is still alive and if anything can be done to assist him in any way." (August 2, 1940).
Despite the delays, Sanger's record in bringing refugees to America was largely successful. From letters at the Sophia Smith Collection, we have identified at least twenty people for whom Sanger signed affidavits (or had friends and co-workers sign) and of those, only five (unfortunately including Dr. Rubinraut) appear not to have made it to America, and none – despite their worst fears – appear to have perished in the war. Most, though not all of the refugees were doctors, including Ludwig and F. Sidonie Fürst Chiavacci (Italy) who were able to continue practicing medicine in the U.S. after taking licensing exams; Ernst Gräfenberg, Norbert Neufeld, and Hertha and Walter Riese (Germany); and Tilde Winternitz (Czechoslovakia). Others were acquaintances of Sanger's associates, such as Anna Kreupl, a housekeeper who wanted to emigrate with her employer, actress Lilia Skala, and Ludmilla Protitch, who later worked as an interpreter in the U.S.
The number of people who finally reached the United States and other safe havens pales beside those who did not. As the nation commemorates the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on April 26, we were reminded of the war's impact on those Americans who before 1941 thought they could avoid getting involved and those like Sanger who did not turn their back when finally called.
Revised: November 14, 2002